Stamford – Raucous union demonstrators outside a Connecticut Republicans’ fundraiser Monday showed that Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin remains a lightning rod for curtailing the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.
But does Walker’s battles with labor in the Midwest make him a role model for GOP candidates considering a challenge next year to this state’s Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy?
Walker thinks so. So does Jerry Labriola, the state GOP chairman who invited Walker to deliver a pep talk to a struggling party and headline its major annual fundraiser, the Prescott Bush Dinner.
“I certainly think there is much to be learned by the approach that he has taken,” Labriola said. “I would not shy away from saying that he could be a role model for how we could solve our problems.”
Walker is intriguing to some Republicans here.
“Wisconsin is the epicenter of progressive politics. Look at what he’s done,” said Chris Healy, the former Republican state chairman. “There is nothing to say it can’t be done here.”
Wisconsin was like Connecticut when Walker ran for governor in 2010: Democrats held the governor’s office, both houses of the state legislature and just about every other office worth holding.
“Today, everything has flipped,” Walker said. “There’s hope. There’s hope. In many ways, it parallels.”
Despite the GOP victories in the statehouse in 2010, President Obama still carried the state by double digits in 2012, just as he did in Connecticut.
Walker’s audience included at least four potential candidates for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, including the leaders of the Republican minorities in the House and Senate.
All praised Walker for his boldness and his ability to improve Wisconsin’s reputation among business leaders, but none gave an unqualified endorsement of the war he declared on labor.
Tom Foley, the 2010 Republican nominee for governor, laughed before the sold-out dinner at the Hilton when asked if Walker was a viable role model for the next Connecticut governor.
“That doesn’t seem to be practical here in Connecticut,” said Foley, who lost to Malloy in one of the state’s closest gubernatorial elections. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“I don’t know if it’s necessary to have as confrontational an approach,” said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who was Foley’s running mate in 2010 and is considering a run in 2014.
Walker, 45, took office in Wisconsin on Jan. 3, 2011, two days before Malloy was inaugurated in Hartford as this state’s first Democratic governor in 20 years. Each inherited deficits of more than $3 billion.
“He and Dan Malloy took very different roads. His road has worked to get Wisconsin’s fiscal house in order. Dan Malloy’s road hasn’t,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, also a potential challenger to Malloy.
Opening a battle that reverberated nationally, Walker successfully sought to strip state employees of collective bargaining rights for everything except wages. Malloy demanded concessions, but he defended the right to bargain.
More than two years later, Walker is a hero among conservatives as the survivor of a bitter and expensive recall election. Later this week, he will be the featured speaker at a GOP dinner in Iowa, stoking speculation of presidential ambitions.
As ranked by Chief Executive Magazine, his state is now the 17th best state for business, up from 41st in 2010.
“That’s something this state could model itself after,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, another Republican considering a challenge to Malloy next year.
Outside the Hilton, more than 100 union members marched from the Stamford train station to the hotel’s entrance driveway, which sits on a suburban-style office campus.
Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4, said union members were stunned that Connecticut Republicans would look to Walker for a pep talk.
“I think it shows they are out of touch,” he said.
Walker drew laughter and applause when he suggested that Republicans everywhere were in his debt, because he drew so much labor money into Wisconsin for the recall election.
On Monday, he told audience members they need to reach beyond their comfortable base. Walker won as county executive in Milwaukee, going to Democratic strongholds.
“They had never seen a Republican before,” Walker said.
Walker said Republicans can win by drawing meaningful contrasts with Democrats.
“We care about education. They care about education bureaucracy,” Walker said. “It’s talking in terms that are relevant.”
Walker’s approval rating is just 51 percent, and his state faces some of the same long-term fiscal challenges as Connecticut.
His budgets produced surpluses in his first two years, but Wisconsin is projected to face annual deficits of more than $300 million, beginning in 2015.
Linda McMahon, the 2010 and 2012 nominee for U.S. Senate, was greeted with warm applause when introduced from the massive head table, a two-tiered arrangement that seated 40 people.
McMahon said she appreciated the greeting, but she has no plans to run for Congress, despite U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, using her as a foil to raise money.
McKinney, Cafero and Boughton all had speaking roles. Foley was introduced, but he was not invited to the microphone.